North to Alaska -- and back
Wonder Wife and I will be in Astoria, Oregon, on the day this particular column appears on www.central-view.com and is released to subscribing newspapers. We will have just been up the Inside Passage to Ketchikan and Juneau, Alaska, and back.
For yours truly, this voyage up the Inside Passage is part of a family tradition – only I got to make the trip in the luxury of the Norwegian Dynasty cruise ship.
My grandfather, William Alexander Hamilton, was the first to hear the call of the wild and to feel the fever of the gold rush. Papa Hamilton was one of those hardy souls who left the farm in Illinois and climbed the infamous Chilkoot Pass time and time again until he delivered to the top of the pass the 1,500 pounds of provisions the Canadian Government required each gold-rusher to stockpile at the top of the pass.
My mother’s side of the family has Alaska ties as well. My Aunt, Anabeth Rennie Hanlon, taught school in Fairbanks for over 30 years. Aunt Anabeth was earning master’s degrees in zoology and biology when women were still supposed to be in the kitchen.
A girlhood friend of famed aviator, Wiley Post, Anabeth went to Alaska prior to World War II where she perfected several homesteads, learned where to pan for gold and became an icon of the Fairbanks community. Through Wiley Post, Anabeth met Will Rogers and was with them shortly before their tragic deaths. Somewhere, I still have some of the ping-pong balls that Post and Rogers carried in their wings as flotation aids.
During World War II, Anabeth met, James Hanlon, who was sent to Alaska by General Motors to teach Russian pilots and mechanics the intricacies of the Allison engines that powered many of the aircraft we were “giving” the Russian through the lend-lease program. She and Lt. Colonel Hanlon were married after the war in Oklahoma and I, as a little kid, was a ring-bearer in their wedding.
My mother’s brother, David Rennie, spent some time in Alaska as well; however, he returned to the lower 48 in time to help build the famed C-47 “Dakota” transports.
Prior to the death of Aunt Anabeth, I was one of the few members of the Hamilton/Rennie clan who had not been to Alaska. Check that. During the Vietnam War, I made a refueling stop in Anchorage and, during the Pueblo Crisis, we stopped to refuel in Anchorage en route to South Korea. But I hadn’t really been to Alaska until Aunt Anabeth was on her way back to Oklahoma and was killed in a car wreck near Delta, Alaska.
My cousin, Bob Rennie, the family attorney, arranged for me to go to Fairbanks to take charge of Aunt Anabeth’s assets and return them to Oklahoma.
In her later years, Aunt Anabeth had become what one might term a well-to-do “bag lady.” Only her bag was a huge station wagon. Wherever she went, she carried a small fortune in gold nuggets, diamonds, other jewels and artwork.
Evidently, she had a fatal stroke near Delta and crashed head-on into a huge road machine. She never knew what she hit or hit her.
When I arrived via rental car in Delta, I was taken to the local jail where I was ushered into a jail cell in the middle of which were all of Aunt Anabeth’s gold nuggets, diamonds jewels and some cash. It is to the everlasting credit of the Alaska Highway Patrol that not one item was missing. Thankfully, the Code of the West was still alive and well.
As Wonder Wife and I visited ports such as Ketchikan and Juneau -- place names so familiar to me from family folklore -- you can bet I shed some tears and said some prayers in memory of those stalwarts on both sides of my family who, years ago, went North to Alaska. God bless them all.
William Hamilton is a nationally syndicated columnist and featured commentator for USA Today.